While Friday prayers conclude at the Suada Mosque, the faithful direct their attention outward, where Fakhry Affan runs a drone high up, taking photos of the hidden building in a corner of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island.
Affan leads a government team of some 1,000 mosque hunters who have spent years visiting every corner of the 5,000-kilometer (3,100-mile) archipelago to answer a question: how many mosques are in the world’s largest Muslim nation?
“Only God knows exactly how many mosques are in Indonesia,” former Vice President Jusuf Kalla joked recently.
“Some say about a million and people will take it for granted.”
So far, Affan’s team has registered 554,152 mosques and the census, which began in 2013, has only been completed by 75 percent, Affan says.
Previous government estimates set the total at more than 740,000 across the country.
Almost 90 percent of the 260 million inhabitants of Indonesia are Muslims and is home to the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, the largest in Southeast Asia with room for 200,000 faithful.
So it is a Herculean task for Affan and his team in the ministry of religious affairs, as it travels through a country of some 17,000 islands, where new mosques are rising all the time.
After obtaining key information about the Suada Mosque of 3,000 inhabitants of the city of Mamuju, including the building permit and the details of the mosque committee, Affan uploads his photos of drones into a bulky online database.
“We did it manually in the past, but now we are becoming digital,” he told AFP.
The government also plans to launch an Android-based application called Info Masjid (Mosque Information) so that Muslims can use their smartphone to find the nearest place of worship.
Nur Salim Ismal, who attends the Suada Mosque, hopes that moving online will bring greater transparency.
“Mosques handle huge amounts of money from the faithful and it should be clear how it is being used,” he said.
But the mosque hunt is not just a counting exercise, it is also a way of monitoring radicalism.
“Radical ideology can proliferate anywhere and mosques are one of the easiest places to spread,” Affan said.
“Why? Since you don’t need to invite people to the mosque, they will come anyway.
“We want to ensure that all magnet committees and (mosques) are moderated because Islam in Indonesia is moderate,” he added.
Indonesia’s long-standing reputation for tolerant pluralism has been proven in recent years.
The uncompromising Muslims are becoming increasingly expressive in public and the country hosts dozens of extremist groups loyal to the violent ideology of the Islamic State group.
“Work without end”
In 2018, the Indonesian intelligence agency said it had found dozens of mosques that served government workers who spread radicalism and called for violence against non-Muslims, only in a neighborhood of Jakarta.
The alarming figures came several months after the second largest city in Indonesia, Surabaya, was shaken by a wave of suicide bombings carried out by families in churches during Sunday services, killing a dozen people.
Members of a group loyal to IS tried to assassinate the Indonesian prime minister of security last year, while in November a militant suicide bomber committed suicide and wounded six others during an attack at a police station.
Indonesia’s new vice president, Ma’ruf Amin, a cleric turned politician, said the government would begin to certify preachers and mosque congregations across the country to eliminate militants in their ranks.
“There is a possibility that mosques are prone to radicalism if they are not monitored,” said Ali Munhanif, an expert in political Islam at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta.
“The government has a responsibility to monitor all mosques in Indonesia.”
In the count so far, the team has counted 258,958 large mosques and another 295,194 smaller mosques, which fit 40 people or less.
Affan and his team hope to finish the initial round of counting this year.
“But this is endless work and it will never end,” he said. “It is quite rare for a mosque to close, but one thing is certain: the number of new ones will continue to increase.”